Kentucky

Turmoil split this county’s leaders. Can a judge order up compromise at McDonald’s?

After an Eastern Kentucky official sued his own fiscal court last week, the circuit court judge who heard the case ruled that Breathitt County Judge-Executive Jeffery Noble and one of the magistrates he sued must meet for coffee — twice a week, at McDonald’s.

Then he thought better of it.

Breathitt County Circuit Court Judge Frank Fletcher overruled his earlier decision and dismissed the suit Wednesday, but an attorney for Noble said the judge-executive plans to appeal.

In a county famous for its historic and deadly feuds — “Bloody Breathitt,” it’s called — the judge pleaded in his order for civility and compromise, even including a picture of a dog watching a skunk eat from its bowl.

At the top of the picture: “Two of the greatest qualities in life are ... Patience and Wisdom.”

Noble’s suit against the county’s fiscal court — four magistrates and Noble himself — comes amid other financial turmoil, including that a local hospital recently hired a collection agency to recover $763,000 in unpaid bills from the fiscal court.

The lawsuit centers around the appointment of a county road supervisor.

Noble argued magistrates violated state law by arbitrarily blocking his appointment of a road supervisor and leaving the position vacant for more than a year.

State law authorizes county judge-executives to appoint road supervisors, and gives magistrates the authority to approve those appointments and set the salaries, said Breathitt County Attorney Brendon Miller.

A brief Noble filed in circuit court argues the prolonged vacancy has left the county “in a state of disarray” and constitutes a violation of a state law that requires the position to be filled in a reasonable time.

Derek Jorge Campbell, an attorney representing Noble, said the suit aimed to compel the magistrates to consent to the appointment of a road supervisor, but not necessarily the one Noble had previously appointed.

“The matter is now open to the consideration of the Court of Appeals and we look forward to their thoughts and guidance,” Campbell said.

Magistrates Donnie Bush, Ray Moore and Ellis Tincher, said in a public statement that Noble’s attempt to force approval of the nomination through a court action would have “effectively killed the democratic process and instead vested all decision making power in the hands of the county judge.”

Magistrate Roy Herald declined to comment for this story. All of the magistrates, Noble and Miller are Democrats.

On Thursday, the three magistrates also drafted a letter to Miller saying Noble has appointed a road supervisor named Johnny Stacy without consent of the fiscal court. They argued the action is illegal and a liability concern, and directed Miller to “immediately dismiss Mr. Stacy” and, if Noble objects, to take all action necessary “in order to force compliance.”

Bush said Stacy’s appointment “is causing friction with the workers.”

“He’s over there illegal,” Bush said.

Campell, Noble’s attorney, denied Stacy’s alleged appointment.

In a public statement issued Wednesday, the three magistrates argue the county has been running “smoothly and seamlessly” without the appointment of a road supervisor, and said the fiscal court saved about $80,000 in 2018 by leaving the position unfilled.

They also offered to approve Stacy at a salary of $32,000 with the possibility of a raise following a six-month probationary period.

Noble rejected that offer, and refused to compromise, the magistrates said.

“The main issue was the money. It was nothing personal,” Bush said.

In a separate recommendation, the magistrates proposed that each magistrate would act as the acting road supervisor for their districts, with no additional pay.

Noble’s attorney said that would be unlawful, citing an 1980 attorney general’s opinion that said a fiscal court’s attempt to permanently replace a road supervisor with a committee of fiscal court members was “clearly illegal.”

Magistrates, however, cited a statute allowing “the supervision of the construction and maintenance of roads, without additional compensation, by the county judge/executive, or by committees of the fiscal court.”

Miller, the county attorney, said he has urged both sides to come to a compromise “for the benefit of the county.”

“It’s gotta end sometime soon,” Miller said. “I’ve tried to get both sides to compromise and come to an agreement several times, and they’ve decided not to discuss it.”

Richard Terry, a retired heavy-equipment operator for a coal company who now works part-time as a barber in Jackson, said he likes Noble and the three magistrates, but “I have never ever seen such a bunch of guys that won’t reason with each other.”

The crux of the dispute centers around payment of the road supervisor, which the magistrates argue can be avoided by allowing the fiscal court to oversee the road department.

“During the past four years, like almost every county in Eastern Kentucky, our county has been faced with dwindling tax and coal severance revenues,” the magistrates said.

Breathitt County’s share of the Local Government Economic Assistance Fund, which makes up a substantial portion of coal severance tax revenue, dropped from $1.27 million in 2012 to $157,000 last year.

The conflict over road supervisor comes as the county faces substantial debts to a hospital and the state auditor’s office.

Noble said the Kentucky River Medical Center in Jackson hired a collection agency to pursue about $763,000 in unpaid bills by the county for jail inmates from 2014 through January 2017.

“This kind of blindsided me. I thought we had about $90,000 worth of medical bills,” said Noble, who was elected in November. “We can’t keep coming to the (fiscal) court and saying we’re gonna pay bills when the money becomes available.”

The fiscal court also has about $101,000 in delinquent bills from the state auditor’s office, and another $46,000 that will soon become delinquent.

County Clerk Becky Curtis said the county’s financial struggles have also hurt her office.

Curtis’ budgeted expenses were cut by $152,000 earlier this year, and her office is now responsible for paying additional expenses previously paid by the fiscal court.

Curtis said her office will cut its weekend hours, and may struggle to pay for election proceedings later this year.

“It’s pitiful,” Curtis said. “We can’t move forward.”

Fletcher, the circuit court judge, wrote in his now-overturned McDonald’s ruling that he hoped the two sides would “respect the experience, intellect and wisdom” of Tip O’Neill, a Democrat who was speaker of the U.S. House during much of the time Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was president.

O’Neil was famous for his ability to craft compromises.

Fletcher put pages from O’Neill’s book, All Politics is Local, in the court file with check marks next to some chapters, including “Political compromise is deferring your idea so a majority can be reached,” and “Be Patient with Democracy.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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